Canada’s future isn’t what it used to be

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When, exactly, the Conference Board of Canada decided it would serve the interests of policy makers better by dusting off its crystal ball and throwing caution to the wind is not immediately clear. But wonks and pundits of all stripes owe this sturdy think tank a debt of gratitude for producing its first report under its Strategic Foresight Initiative.

This slim study, which weighs in at only 12 pages, posits four possible “energy futures” for The Great White North, and each one makes for fascinating reading. But first, the obligatory disclaimer: “Unlike traditional economic forecasting that focuses on development of a probable or most-likely future, strategic foresight aims instead to develop a series of plausible futures. Its goal is not to predict the future – or even suggest which direction might be most desirable.”

Rather, the authors state, “The goal. . .is to offer insights to decision-makers in governments, businesses, and other organizations on how best to prepare for all possibilities, what they might do to shift toward a future they prefer, and how to recognize and adapt to events and trends that may point toward a specific future.”

That dutifully said, the Board can’t disguise the delightful fact that it had a ball conjuring four distinct scenarios for the shape of things to come “out to 2050” or that the document reads, in places, like Hugo Award-winning science fiction.

Consider scenario number one, also known as “Hockey Stick”.

It’s a world in which “the Greenland ice cap has shrunk, as has Antarctica. Rising sea levels and an increased frequency of extreme weather events are forcing coastal cities to build massive dykes, with low-lying countries suffering extensive damage from storm surges. The Gulf Stream has shifted south, leaving much of Europe to shiver even as former breadbaskets like the American Midwest have baked into desert. Extreme weather has become frequent – damaging crops, disrupting transportation, and eroding infrastructure.”

As for Canada, where “personal vehicles have become a luxury”, we’ve been hit hard. Fortunately, we anticipated “a world of energy scarcity and environmental trauma,” and so “recognized the need to shift” our economic centre of gravity beyond both resources and manufacturing, toward a competitive post-industrial base.”

The section entitled “Superpower” describes a somewhat happier condition for the nation. This is a world in which, “The opening of Arctic waters has enabled exploitation of other energy pools as well as easier access to mineral deposits, and Canada’s North has become a booming frontier. Canadian producers have been able to reap the higher world prices for oil and gas. But even as export pipelines were planned, reviewed, and built, Eastern provinces have moved quickly to build up their own energy sources.”

Life is, indeed, grand for Canadians. But, as the paper warns, it may be too grand: “For more than a generation, they have been getting rich by selling the world what it wants. But most of what they have been selling is finite. Eventually the party must end. The question now is whether Canadians are setting aside enough of their current income – and investing it well enough – to fund their future well-being in a post-resource world.”

Perhaps, a better, more sustainable, future for the country is the one outlined in “Green Machine”. This states that “Governments have quickly recognized the importance of supporting clean energy development through a combination of technology investments and regulation. Major breakthroughs have been made in energy storage technologies for variable energy sources and massive efficiency improvements for renewable energy generation and transmission.”

As a result, “there is a sense of balance across the country, and general optimism about the ability of technology to handle the continuing evolution of the global environment.”

Then, of course, there is the status quo of “Made in Canada” in which economic stagnation in formerly growing and emerging economies has secured Canada’s role as the world’s premier location for immigrants. Moreover, “With gas cheap and the economy strong, there has been little constraint on urban sprawl and lots of money for more roads in provinces with significant energy resources.”

Will any of these scenarios play out in the years to come? Crystal balls are notoriously cloudy. Still, the fun is in the peering.

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